Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Terrific 'Chicago' moves into San Jose

Allison F. Rich as Velma Kelly leads the ensemble in "All That Jazz."
From the very first song to the last, San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Chicago” is absolutely terrific.

It’s a great show to start with, thanks to the catchy music by John Kander, the clever lyrics by Fred Ebb and the quirky characters in the book by Ebb and Bob Fosse.

And then director Randall King has assembled a top-notch cast and design team to create a great theatrical experience.

As the title implies, the story is set in the Windy City in the 1920's, when lurid headlines dominated local newspapers.

Roxie Hart (Monique Hafen Adams) celebrates her new fame.
When a married chorus girl, Roxie Hart (Monique Hafen Adams), kills her lover, she’s arrested and sent to jail to await trial.

There she gets advice from the matron, “Mama” Morton (Branden Noel Thomas), who sings “When You’re Good to Mama.” Roxie also encounters a potential rival, Velma Kelly (Allison F. Rich).

After that, she hires a slick defense attorney, Billy Flynn (Keith Pinto), who helps her deal with the horde of reporters and photographers eager to hear her story. Among them is sob sister Mary Sunshine (Kyle Bielfield).

Lost in the shuffle is her clueless but loving husband, Amos Hart (Sean Doughty), an auto mechanic.
He has one of the show’s most poignant songs, “Mister Cellophane.” He laments that no one notices him. Even when he moves about the stage, the spotlight doesn’t follow him.

The show opens with the rousing “All That Jazz,” sung by Velma and the ensemble.

Some other show-stoppers are “Cell Block Tango,” sung by Velma and the women’s ensemble; “Razzle Dazzle,” sung by Billy and the company; and “Class,” sung by Velma and “Mama.”

These are just a few, but virtually every song is enjoyable.

Something that distinguishes this production from others that have been seen in the Bay Area, starting with the Broadway touring production in San Francisco in 1978, is that it has few of the elaborate scenic elements that are possible in larger theaters.

No matter. King, along with set designer Robert Pickering and lighting designer Michael Palumbo, keeps things simple, relying on the music and talented cast to carry the show.

Likewise, Tracey Freeman Shaw’s choreography has the signature movements from Fosse’s original despite the small stage.

Although every principal and cast member deserves accolades, special mention must be made of Rich when her Velma sings, “I Can’t Do It Alone.” Trying to convince Roxie to join her in the act that she and her sister once did, Velma demonstrates athletic, limber moves while singing – quite a feat.

Rich does double duty as the show’s vocal director.

Also noteworthy is the small onstage band led by music director Benjamin Belew from the piano.

In short, this is one great show.

“Chicago” will continue through March 15 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. 

For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.

Photos by Dave Lepori


Monday, February 10, 2020

Characters confront mortality in 'The Children'


James Carpenter as Robin, Julie Eccles (center) as Hazel and Anne Darragh as Rose enjoy a dance from their past.
Combine three veteran Bay Area actors with a brilliant director and an intriguing play, and what you have is Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children.”

It opens with the unexpected arrival of Rose (Anne Darragh), a friend and former colleague whom Hazel (Julie Eccles) hasn’t seen in more than 30 years.

Robin and Hazel have a serious talk.
Hazel and her husband, Robin (James Carpenter), live in a relative’s cottage in an English seaside village.

They’ve been there since being forced to retreat from their farm near the nuclear power plant that suffered a meltdown after a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Because the plant has been crippled, they have no electricity until 10 p.m. and must drink bottled rather than tap water.

Playwright Kirkwood says she bases this part of her plot on the disaster that struck the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011.

Rose, Robin and Hazel are retired nuclear physicists in their 60s who had worked at the (fictional) English plant.

The play’s title refers not only to Hazel and Robin’s four adult children but also to the relatively young scientists trying to contain the damage and shut the plant down.

The never-married Rose is visiting to see if she can convince her hosts to join her and other older scientists to replace those workers and give them a chance to live longer, for the danger is deadly.

Thus Hazel and Robin must confront their own mortality, as does Rose, who has already had breast cancer. All three deal with their concerns in their own way.

Other issues concern the personal relationships among the characters. For example, it soon becomes clear that Robin and Rose have been intimate within the recent past.

There also are frequent references to one of Hazel and Robin’s children, Lauren, who’s in her 30s but who apparently has problems that aren’t made clear.

Director Barbara Damashek skillfully and sensitively guides these fine actors through the play’s emotional ups and downs. She mines both its humor, especially in the earlier moments, and the strong feelings evoked by the situation and the characters’ relationships.

She’s aided in her efforts by intimacy and movement choreographer Natalie Greene, along with set designer Mikiko Uesugi, costume designer Cassandra Carpenter, lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer and sound designer Jeff Mockus.

Altogether this production has staying power and provokes much thought.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, it will continue through March 1 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Saturday, February 1, 2020

ACT presents Will Eno's 'Wakey, Wakey'

Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) listens to Guy (Tony Hale).

The protagonist in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” is Guy (Tony Hale), a man in a wheelchair ruminating on what’s important in life.

In this American Conservatory Theater production directed by Anne Kauffman, it gradually becomes apparent that Guy probably doesn’t have long to live and that he’s in what might be a hospice (the set by costume designer Kimie Nishikawa with lighting by Russell H. Champa).

The play is essentially a stream-of-consciousness monologue lasting an hour or so until Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) arrives. A caregiver, she mostly listens as he continues to weaken.

That’s about it. There’s no plot per se.

Although it can become tiresome, one of Guy’s points resonated. He told audience members to recall a person in their lives who made a difference, who set off a chain of events that led to where they are today.

Various projections such as animals or a child delighting in an ice cream cone add some visual interest. They’re by sound designer Leah Gelpe.

This 75-minute play is preceded by Eno’s “The Substitution,” a 15-minute play featuring four students from ACT’s MFA program and Smith-McGlynn as a community college substitute teacher, Ms. Forester.

Ms. Forester starts by teaching one subject until the students tell her that this is a drivers ed class.

Because it’s in a boxy classroom (curtained off for “Wakey, Wakey”), the sound doesn’t travel well, making the lines hard to hear.

The total production lasts about 90 minutes with no intermission.

“Wakey, Wakey” will continue through Feb. 16 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne





Thursday, January 30, 2020

Hillbarn stages 'Little Shop of Horrors'

From left: Ronnette (Melinda Campero), Chiffon (Becky Alex) and Crystal (Kylie Abucay) sing. (Tracy Martin photo)

“Little Shop of Horrors” is far from great theater, but it’s usually great fun.
Directed by Tyler Christie, Hillbarn Theatre’s production isn’t always great fun, but it has its strengths. Chief among them are the three women who serve as a sassy Greek chorus.

Kylie Abucay as Crystal, Becky Alex as Chiffon and Melinda Campero as Ronnette are always fun to watch and hear as they sing, dance and comment throughout the show. Randy O’Hara did the choreography.

With a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, “Little Shop” is set in a rundown florist shop in Skid Row. Owned by Mr. Mushnik (Jesse Caldwell), it’s about to close down for lack of business.

Seymour (Phil Wong) holds Audrey
II. (Mark Kitaoka photo)
However, Audrey (Jocelyn Pickett), one of his two employees, says that the other employee, Seymour (Phil Wong), has a “strange and interesting plant.”

Mr. Mushnik places it in the front window, and sure enough, business starts to pick up, and Seymour gains a measure of fame.

There’s just one hitch. It seems that the plant, named Audrey II, has a finicky appetite, thriving only on human blood. At first a few pin pricks from Seymour are enough for it to grow. However, its appetite becomes more voracious, leading to some nefarious deeds.

Although the nerdy Seymour is enamored with Audrey, she’s in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin (Sam Nachison, who plays several other roles, too). She stays with him because she doesn’t think she deserves anyone better.

One of the unique aspects of this production, at least in comparison with the several others that have been seen around the Bay Area in recent years, is that Audrey II isn’t just a prop that grows and grows and that is voiced by a man who insists, “Feed me.”

Jad Bernardo portrays Audrey
II. (Mark Kitaoka photo)
Instead, the plant is seen as a man in high drag, Jad Bernardo. The device doesn’t always work, though, especially since the actor appears so soon in the production.

Some of the songs and lines are humorous, especially when they reflect the characters’ views of what constitutes something better for them. For example, when singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” Audrey longs for a nicer place to live, but “nothing fancy like Levittown.”

Later, Seymour says he’d like to take her to a fancy dinner at somewhere like Howard Johnson’s.

Design elements are mostly good, especially the costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, who also designed the hair and makeup.

The two-level, appropriately dingy set is by Kuo-Hao Lo, with lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Brandie Larkin.

Music director is Joe Murphy, who plays drums in the five-person band.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Little Shop of Horrors” will continue through Feb. 9 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.



Thursday, January 23, 2020

Nora returns in 'A Doll's House, Part 2'

Torvald (Michael Champlin), after a scuffle with the town clerk, holds a book by Nora (Gabriella Grier).

Fifteen years ago, Nora Helmer slammed the door to her home in Norway, leaving behind her husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Now she has returned in Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

Using a  pseudonym, Nora (Gabriella Grier) has become the successful writer of pro-feminist, anti-marriage books. She faces major legal problems because it has been learned that, contrary to her belief, her husband, Torvald (Michael Champlin), hasn’t divorced her.

However, Torvald, a banker, has allowed people to think that she has died. If he files for divorce, his misrepresentation would be exposed, ruining his career.

Katherine Hamilton is Emmy.
Nora enlists their young adult daughter, Emmy (Katherine Hamilton), to try to convince Torvald to grant the divorce, but Emmy doesn’t want to jeopardize her engagement and future happiness because of the scandal.

Anne Marie (Judith Miller), the family’s longtime maid, is caught in the middle of this web of dilemmas.

Although the acting by all four cast members is noteworthy, Jeffrey Lo’s direction and some design elements have missteps.

Lo overdramatizes the arrival of each character with piano music, a projection of the person’s name and red lighting. It’s all too gimmicky.

Moreover, shortly after Nora arrives and is greeted by Anne Marie, she reaches into her purse for an aluminum soda can, pops the top and takes a drink. If for some reason the actor needed to drink something, a pitcher of water with a glass wouldn’t be a jarring anachronism.

And in Hnath’s script, Anne Marie sometimes uses four-letter words that are out of keeping with the times and the character.

In addition to the red lights for the arrival of characters, Carolyn A. Guggemos’s lighting sometimes leaves characters in shadows even as they’re speaking.

Christopher Fitzer’s set features white walls with huge, garish blue flowers along with a few clear plastic chairs and table (more anachronisms).

On the other hand, Melissa Sanchez’s costumes for the Helmers are elegant, befitting the late 19th century. The sound is by Jeff Grafton.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue through Feb. 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid



Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' illustrates the power of music

Pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother, also a pianist. (Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

In an engrossing blend of great music and sometimes harrowing narration presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, concert pianist Mona Golabek relates the story of a young woman’s journey through the perils of World War II in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”

That woman was Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother. Her story begins when Lisa was a 14-year-old, aspiring Jewish pianist in Vienna in 1938 as Nazi terrorism against Jews accelerated.

Her father managed to get her a ticket for the Kindertransport, which English people organized to take thousands of children from cities controlled by the Third Reich to the safety of homes in England.

After several places in England, Lisa wound up at the Willesden Lane hostel in London along with about two dozen other children. She worked in a sewing factory making military uniforms and entertained people at the hostel with her piano playing.

She didn’t know what had happened to her parents and two younger sisters in Vienna.

She survived the German bombing of London, including a direct hit on the hostel.

She eventually received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music and worked as a pianist entertaining soldiers on leave at a swank hotel, where she met her future husband.

While relating her mother’s story, Golabek intersperses it by playing piano works by such greats as Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Chopin and others.

The story is unified by Jura’s love of Grieg’s challenging Piano Concerto in A minor. The first movement opens the story, the second comes in the middle and the third provides the dramatic climax.

Lee Cohen and Hershey Felder, the pianist whose one-man re-creations of composers like Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and others have been huge hits at TheatreWorks and elsewhere, adapted this work from Cohen and Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

Felder directs. Along with Trevor Hay, he also designed the set. Framed in gilt, it features a grand piano in front of four gilded picture frames where various photos and scenes are projected.

One of the most moving is newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers herding Jews toward the trains that would take them to concentration camps and likely death. The projections are by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.

Lighting is by Jason Bieber, sound by Erik Carstensen. Golabek’s simple black dress is by Jaclyn Maduff.

The play has been seen throughout the country, including a well-received production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2013.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, it’s a truly memorable theatrical experience about the soul-lifting power of music as well as a cautionary tale about tyranny.

Ticket demand has been so great that TheatreWorks extended it one week, through Feb. 16, even before its Jan. 18 opening at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Bay Area premiere of Heather Raffo's 'Noura'

From left: Yazen (Valentino Herrera), Tareq (Mattico David), Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), Maryam (Maya Nazzal) and Rafa'a (Abraham Makany) sit down for their Christmas dinner.

The title character in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” being given its Bay Area premiere by the Marin Theatre Company, is an Iraqi Christian who left the violence in her home country and has been in New York City for eight years.

It’s Christmas Eve. Noura (Denmo Ibrahim); Tareq (Mattico David), her husband of 20 years; and Yazen (Valentino Herrera), their grade school-age son; are celebrating the arrival of their American passports and preparing for a traditional Iraqi Christmas dinner.

When they were in Mosul, Noura was an architect and Tareq was a surgeon. Once in the United States, they could no longer practice their professions. Instead, Noura teaches in an inner city middle school, and Tareq works in a hospital emergency room. He had a job in a Subway shop when they first arrived.

At the dinner, they’re joined by Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), a Muslim who has been their friend ever since their days in Iraq.

The other guest is Maryam (Maya Nazzal). Noura and Tareq haven’t met her, but they have supported her ever since she was an orphan at a convent in Iraq, through college in the United States and now as she’s about to start a career in thermodynamics.

Tareq and Noura in a happier moment.
Her arrival sets off some unexpected reactions, especially from Tareq, leading to a major emotional crisis for him and Noura.

Throughout the play, Noura is haunted by memories of Iraq, especially the violence and the loss of friends and family wrought by ISIS. She continues to try to recover from those losses.

Thus she symbolizes the difficulties that many Iraqis and other people face after escaping from horrible circumstances. Rafa’a suggests that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the play reaches its ambiguous conclusion, the revelations pile up in almost melodramatic fashion.

At times the threads of Raffo’s plot are hard to follow, a problem heightened by the difficulty of understanding some of the accents.

Nevertheless, this production directed by Kate Bergstrom, in association with Golden Thread Productions, benefits from solid performances by all five cast members.

The barebones set, featuring a Christmas tree, dining table and little else, is by Adam Rigg with lighting by Kate Boyd. The costumes are by Anna Oliver with sound by Nihan Yesil.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, “Noura” will continue through Feb. 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne